Senior Women’s Open at Pine Needles a tribute to that club’s late legend’s legacy

Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club owner Peggy Kirk Bell celebrates the announcement in June 1996 that the U.S. Women’s Championship would return to her course in 2001.
Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club owner Peggy Kirk Bell celebrates the announcement in June 1996 that the U.S. Women’s Championship would return to her course in 2001. News & Observer file photo

Donna Andrews couldn’t help but smile when thinking about the next few days ahead at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club, and how they’ll shine a light on Peggy Kirk Bell’s legacy as one of women’s golf’s biggest advocates.

With Bell’s posthumous induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame less than a month away, the club she co-owned until her death at 95 in 2016 is preparing to host the second-ever U.S. Senior Women’s Open, which begins Thursday.

“I think Peggy Kirk Bell would feel honored,” said Donna Andrews, the lead teaching instructor at Pine Needles and one of the 120 golfers in this week’s field. “I think it’s ironic that she’s being inducted into the Hall of Fame the same year that we’re having the tournament here.”

At Pine Needles, Bell built a reputation as one of the sport’s best teachers, which was reflected in her distinction as the first woman to make Golf Magazine’s teaching hall of fame. She helped bring the U.S. Women’s Open to Pine Needles for the first time in 1996, and the event returned in 2001 and 2007 and is set to come back in 2022 as well.

But the arrival of the Senior Women’s Open, in just its second year of existence, is something Bell would have loved to have seen. The event has been touted by participants as further proof of the strides the women’s game has made over the years.

“She would have been thrilled to have seen all of these players,” Andrews said. “These are players that she watched, that she grew up watching, too. She was one of our founding members and these are the players she helped establish.”

One such player is Sally Austin, a Pinehurst native and UNC’s women’s golf coach from 1993-2009. Austin was just 12 when she began working with Bell. She said Bell was intuitive as an instructor and had the ability to get her messages across in different ways depending on the personality of the golfer she was coaching. Years later, Austin is honored to be playing in a USGA event at her coach’s stomping grounds.

“I know she’s looking down and smiling,” Austin said. “I’m so glad it’s here, that I’m one of her students and I’m playing.”

Austin is one six golfers in the field either born or residing in North Carolina. Another is Charlotte resident Patty Moore, one of 33 amateurs in the field. Greensboro native Tama Caldabaugh, Kitty Hawk resident Cathy Johnston-Forbes and Wake Forest resident Maggie Will are also playing.

The field includes eight Women’s Open champions, including 80-year-old JoAnne Carner. Two-time champion Juli Inkster is hoping to improve upon her second-place finish in last year’s inaugural event, which was won by Laura Davies by 10 strokes at Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton, Ill.

Davies, 55, is expecting a whole new experience this year compared to last because of the contrast in course styles. Succeeding at Pine Needles is much more about strategy because you can’t be as aggressive, she said.

“It’s completely different to Chicago,” said Davies, the LPGA’s player of the year in 1996. “You can spray it a little bit around that golf course. Here you’re going to be punished every single time you hit a bad shot, and hitting it into the greens is difficult because you can’t go for the pins.”

The par-71 Donald Ross course features three par 5s and plays at 6,016 yards.

With her win in the inaugural event last July, Davies has already qualified for this year’s Women’s Open, which will be played in Charleston, S.C., from May 30-June 2. This year’s winner will join her there, unless Davies repeats as champion, which would qualify her for the 2020 Women’s Open.

Regardless of the winner, Jan Stephenson, the 1983 Women’s Open champion, thinks the Senior Women’s Open has already had a positive impact on growing the scope of women’s golf at the senior level.

“It’s certainly good for the future,” Stephenson said. “The Laura Davies and Juli Inksters are in a pretty good position.”

That the course Bell called home will serve as the setting for another USGA events would have made her proud, those who knew her believe.

“This is her legacy,” Austin said.

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